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A poetry publisher on the math of rejection

Every year, Jeff Shotts, executive editor of Graywolf Press, sorts through thousands of poetry submissions -- and rejects about 99 percent of them. It’s not a success rate poets like to hear, he says, but it’s the reality in the poetry publishing industry. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Shotts about his company’s location in the small press “mecca” and why there’s never been a better time for poetry.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, the story of a small but influential publisher that is succeeding at making poetry ever more relevant to the problems and dynamics of our time.

    Jeffrey Brown reports from Minnesota.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Recommend encouraging —

  • Woman:

    Rejection.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Rejection.

  • Jeff Shotts,, Graywolf Press:

    Executive Editor An encouraging rejection.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    An encouraging rejection as opposed to what?

  • Jeff Shotts:

    A discouraging rejection.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Jeff Shotts clearly loves his job. But one part of it — sorting through thousands of poetry manuscripts every year — and rejecting 99 percent of them — that’s not his favorite.

  • Jeff Shotts:

     I don’t want to be the “rejection guy.”

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeff Shotts:

    Jeffrey — rejection is part of the equation of being an artist and not just a poet. But, you know, we’re receiving thousands of poetry submissions.

  • Jeffrey Brown: 

    Yes, literally.

  • Jeff Shotts:

    : Literally, every year. And we’re publishing about 10 to 12 poetry books in a year. And the math of that is very difficult I think in one way for poets probably to hear.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I think I saw your shoulders just slump as you said it.

  • Jeff Shotts:

    A little bit, yes, yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Shotts is executive editor at Graywolf Press in Minneapolis, a small but prominent literary publisher.

  • Jeff Shotts:

    What time was that?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One of the hundreds of sometimes tiny cogs that keep the world of poetry alive and thriving. And those books Graywolf has been publishing — of many poetic styles and subjects — are getting a lot of attention these days. Volumes like Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen”, examining overt and subtle racism, which has won numerous prizes and garnered huge sales.

    And more recently, Solmaz Sharif’s “Look” — about war and violence — was on the short list for the national book award. Two other Graywolf collections made the long list.

  • Jeff Shotts:

    We want our poetry books to be challenging — challenging the way that these are poets who are engaging with important social issues in many cases.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Do you think this accounts in part for the success — the recent success you’ve had?

  • Jeff Shotts:

    I think there is something about the fact that so many of us in American culture are saturated with media, saturated with social media maybe in particular. But the idea of being able to hold an object in your hand, it is an engagement, an individual engagement with an individual voice that I don’t think any other art form than poetry can provide in the same way.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Graywolf was started 42 years ago in Washington state. Ten years in, the press came to Minnesota, where it found a welcoming home.

  • Jeff Shotts:

    Books that are relevant to what people are thinking about.

  • Jeffrey Brown:, who punch well above their weight, sold their wares:

    The Twin Cities have developed a reputation as a small press Mecca and big book town.

    We visited during its annual festival of books where indie locals coffee house press, rain taxi review, milkweed editions, and many more.

    Graywolf’s Jeff Shotts says there’s never been a better time for poetry publishing.

  • Jeff Shotts:

    The vitality of poetry right now I think is at a pitch high. And I think there are more people reading it, engaging with it, performing it, saying it out loud, saying it in an interior way and making it part of their daily lives.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And a lot of people writing it — which brings us back to that rejection business. This past summer, when Graywolf put out a call for manuscripts, nearly 2,000 were sent in.

    It’s cruel, but you like to see the number go down.

  • Woman:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown: 

    Shotts and colleagues read every work submitted, sorted them into yes and, mostly, no categories, but also drew careful distinctions between “no, not ever” and a “no, but maybe someday”.

  • Jeff Shotts:

    You know, there was something in this that was exciting. It didn’t quite hit for us here, but, you know, let’s keep in touch and is there a conversation that can happen? That’s something I’m excited about having as an ongoing out here conversation with poets all over the world.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You would reject people several times, but keep talking.

  • Jeff Shotts:

    Absolutely.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And then eventually something would come.

  • Jeff Shotts:

    This has certainly happened and we’ve had marvelous books as a result of it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And his advice to those who don’t make the cut?

  • Jeff Shotts: 

    I don’t think it makes someone less of a poet not to be published. They are still a poet. So, there’s publishing and then there’s poetry.

    Yes, those things can go hand in hand in a way to present particular kinds of poetry. But more often than not, poetry is also meant to be performed or spoken or shared intimately. That is absolutely the place where poetry is inside our lives.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    From Minneapolis, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour”.

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